Archive for August, 2010
The Venice Biennale of Architecture is:
A) A great place to show off your new clothes
B) A great place to show off your new boyfriend/girlfriend/baby/dog
C) A great place to walk up and down various densely populated areas displaying your heartrending coolness, trendiness, disposable income
D) A great excuse to come to Venice for the weekend
E) A great place to look at new ideas in architectural design
Correct answer: All but E. If you want to learn something about architecture, read a book.
The Biennale has an impressive history, pockmarked with names ranging from famous to immortal in the worlds of art, and, with the passage of years, in dance, music, theater, and architecture as well. Let me not belittle it, nor its aspirations, nor its useful toil nor homely joys nor anything else about it. If I were the owner of a bar, cafe, or restaurant, I would have been counting the minutes till its opening on one hand, and my estimated daily take on the other. Oops, not enough fingers.
What it looks like to me — looking at it without any architecture, or painting or dance or whatever — is the biannual gathering of hundreds of people who have just landed from the famous Planet Look at Me, Look at Me. I can’t take it as seriously as it wants to be taken — I’m not sure anybody can –precisely because of the people from London and Berlin and Paris and all sorts of other places in order to A, B, C and D. Judging by the characters I see around, it is not something to be taken seriously. It’s probably wrong to evaluate an exhibition using the old ad hominem approach, but it’s almost inevitable.
The end of August is always like that scene in the horror movie when the monster, which is supposed to be dead, suddenly rears up in his coffin and lunges at you. The stupefying heat and the fact that nine-tenths of Venice is empty of Venetians would lead you to think that all the city needed right now was for somebody to place the coins on its closed eyelids and tiptoe away.
But no. In the space of two weeks we have: The Biennale, the Venice Film Festival, the Campiello Prize, and the Regata Storica. This weekend is the Biennale’s opening frenzy, and Friday was the inauguration of two new exhibition spaces.
I enjoy all this, it’s better than TV. Except for the hell of traveling on the vaporettos, which suddenly turn into Third World ferries loaded with fabulous people being fabulous with each other and with themselves — I’m here in Venice, look upon me, ye Mighty, and despair — it’s pretty entertaining.
Platoons of people with bags and badges and cameras and laptops and accessories such as shoes clearly not made for walking, and scary jewelry and clothes.
In fact, it’s better than Carnival. In Carnival, you have people dressing up and pretending to be something or somebody else, but everybody knows they’re pretending. The thing that makes the Biennale so diverting is that the people dressing up and behaving oddly aren’t pretending.
And what does all this mean to me? Not much, except between 1:00 and 2:30 in the afternoon, when I could really use a nap. As I may have mentioned (many times), our bedroom windows open onto the street, a street which is a major thoroughfare connecting Sector A (via Garibaldi) with Sector B (the last little lobe of Castello). Unfortunately, the Biennale has installed some exhibitions in said lobe, which means that groups of people stream past the window all day, talking loudly and excitedly in English and French and German and some Slavic languages, maybe Slovenian or Croatian. Excellent languages all, except in Venice, where they cannot be spoken at any level below a shout.
Come to think of it, they could just as easily be passing one by one, each one talking loudly and excitedly on his or her cell phone. In any case, loud and excited talking does not conduce to my after-lunch slumber party. I apologize for reducing the magnitude and splendor of this cultural pageant to my insignificant personal needs, but my apology is not sincere.
I really hope she’s going to dinner.
August in Venice is remarkably similar to August in many other cities — European ones, anyway. The urb seems to go into a sort of trance. There aren’t any major festivals, though modest local events continue to be scattered around, the kind that you can mostly take or leave alone. It’s a desultory sort of month just lollygagging along the line, if there is one, between languor and lethargy.
Yes, there is still heat, sometimes too much of it, but the heat doesn’t quite match that hellish torridity of July. For us city-dwellers (as opposed to farmers, or families on beach vacations), the occasional thunder- or hailstorm serves mainly as entertainment, a little break in the estival monotony. I love watching the hail crashing into the canal outside, cosmic handfuls of ice hurled earthward making the water jump and bounce and froth. I wish it would happen more often. And then, after the storm passes, the limitless space of sky over the lagoon can be covered with enormous, dense clouds that look as if they must have been squeezed out of some colossal can of Cloud-Whip.
Fine — I hear you thinking — but what about All Those Tourists? No need to ask; tourists, like the poor, shall never cease from the earth. Of course there are tourists. And while there are always more visitors than residents, most Venetians, few as there may be anymore, are even fewer now. They’re on vacation, and that means they’ve mostly gone to the mountains. If you want to see some Venetians, you’re going to have to head for Baselga di Pine’ or San Martino di Castrozza.
But what’s different in August is that the tourists seem to fade, in a curious way, and crowded onto the vaporettos, many of them look as if they’ve been thwacked by a two by four. In fact, the whole city seems as if it has faded. Shops shut. Restaurants close. Pharmacies are reduced to a skeleton supply, thoughtfully displaying a sign on their barred doors with the name and address of the nearest open drugstore, which will not be near. The market at Rialto retains only a few, seemingly symbolic, vendors. The sea may be teeming with fish, but the fishmongers don’t care. Pastry-makers go hiking in the Alps, I guess, because they’re not interested in making delicacies containing cream and butter in this heat, nor are there any customers interested in buying them. The only dairy product anybody cares about is ice cream.
So a sensation of scarcity and torpor suffuses the city. If you need some object or service (the lab report on your biopsy, a replacement door to your front-loading washing machine) you can just make up your mind to wait, because factories or warehouses will close. Delivery people will disappear, and that includes letter-carriers. (Not made up.) The post office hardly even hires substitutes. Everything just gets left where you dropped it until September.
Tourists will continue to find what they need. Ice-cream shops (I did mention ice cream, didn’t I?), souvenir vendors, and museums will all be lolling in the shade, waiting for you. But many places that you would assume would be panting for floods of customers just pull the grate across the door and a tape hand-lettered sign to it. There.
There are only two events that make the smallest indentation in the rich layer of silence that has been smoothed over the city. The first is August 15, or Ferragosto. It dates from antiquity to mark, among other things, the end of the harvest, and was recognized officially by the emperor Augustus in the year 18 A.D. Many Catholic countries, since Pope Pius XII’s edict of November 1, 1950, observe it as a religious festival as well as a picnic-at-the-beach festival. (It’s especially beloved in the years when it falls outside a weekend, thereby requiring you to extend your vacation.)
Even after all this time, Ferragosto still doesn’t make much of an impression on me. It’s kind of like observing your second cousin’s mother-in-law’s wedding anniversary. But once you’ve experienced the desolation of most big cities on this day, you can really get how funny the moment is in a little movie whose name escapes me, in which the only son’s elderly mother, living in the center of Rome, begs him to get her fresh fish for lunch on Ferragosto. It would be like asking someone to go out and bring you a fresh piece of moon rock on New Year’s Day.
The only other noticeable August event — for me, at least — are the time trials to winnow out the racers for the Regata Storica (Historic Regatta), which is always held on the first Sunday in September. Not that anybody notices or cares about the eliminations except for the 126 aspiring racers, who have to stay here to continue training up to and, if they pass, after. And of course the judges, such as Lino, care, because they have to organize their hanging-out time around eliminatorie duty, spending endless hours out on the lagoon by Malamocco watching the boats go by at two-minute intervals for what feels like five forevers.
You wouldn’t think anybody had the energy to be strange, but still I’ve noticed little slivers of slightly puzzling behavior. Such as the man sitting on the bench at Malamocco one meaningless afternoon, looking out at the water. Well, the bench itself is odd enough, even without the man, because someone decided to place a lamppost right in front of it, so close that it seems to be a direct challenge to you to decide which is really more important, rest or light. But this man had decided he wanted rest and shade, of all things, and even though there were ample dark patches under the trees where he could have been slightly cooler, he had sat down in the center of the bench in such a way as to benefit from the one narrow strip of shadow it cast. He was sprawled there, straddling the shadow, sun baking him on each side, with a strip of shade going straight up his middle.
Or there was another man (sorry, so far I’ve only noticed the XY chromosome category) who was sitting on the vaporetto in front of us one morning, heading toward the Lido. He looked like a local, well into retirement age, with a hefty little paunch. It was a rare cool morning with little spits of rain and breeze. I was wearing a sweater.
He, on the other hand, was wearing beach flipflops, denim shorts, and a tank top — three-quarters of him was skin. But the rain hadn’t caught him by surprise, because he was wearing a rain hat, a neat little classic made of some form of plastic, and it looked very new. Almost as if he had just bought it.
I sat there looking at him, trying to grasp what instinct could have prompted him to protect his head when the rest of him was destined to be drenched. Let’s assume he was taken by surprise by the sudden turn of meteorological events. Wouldn’t a cheap umbrella have made slightly more sense?
I can’t explain how I find the strength to dwell on these things. Me, I’ve been trying for four days now to decide if I want to polish my toenails and I still can’t make up my mind. It’s just too much to think about.
Someone told me the other day that I should look at a blog called Venezia Nascosta (Hidden Venice),so I did. It’s as attractive as several others which are more or less on the same beam, but it appears to concentrate primarily on history. I’m as interested in Venetian history as the next person, perhaps even more than many (if I may say so), but not when it’s the same old history that turns up in so many books, over and over, like the turkey for weeks after Thanksgiving. And adding a title which is even more trite only makes it worse. “Hidden.” Oy.
But what has driven me to mention it is because it’s yet another in an infinite series of examples of the insatiable need people seem to feel to refer to Venice as “hidden.” “Secret.” “Mysterious.” Despite scores of other worthy adjectives (I like “peerless,” though “incomparable” is also good), people can’t resist using these exhausted banalities to describe a city which evidently was built, not on a batch of marshy wetlands, but on quivering Jungian swamps of the unknowable. Maybe it’s Carnival, with everybody in disguise, that has doomed Venice to be labeled “mysterious.” Maybe it’s the fog. Maybe it’s the wonders of low tide.
I object to this tendency for several reasons. One, because it is a cliche, and cliches annoy me. The image of the city as an enigmatic, unfathomable, a faintly (or overtly) sinister place, an amniotic sort of realm ruled by inscrutable forces illuminated by a faint but lurid aura of romanticism, began to germinate in the 1600s, when visitors began to be interested in the city less as a political or commercial power and more as a place of intrigue, decadence, and general dissipation.
Mystery, in fact, is a quality that was promoted by the city itself, whose patrician families and government (which were the same thing) knew that secrets had real power. Discretion and dissimulation were serious weapons of self-defense in a world composed of much larger and more dangerous nations, all of which wanted to hurt, or, if they were having a very good day, to kill you at some point or another. This much we can certainly appreciate.
“The first who wrapped the city in mystery were the Venetian rulers,” Espedita Grandesso, a Venetian writer and historian, told me once. “Because the Serenissima was a little bijou in the midst of iron barrels. So this state of things made the nobles and merchants keep everything secret, even the most foolish thing. They weren’t completely mistaken. All they needed was the rumor of something going wrong, and all the governments of Europe would be breathing down her neck.”
“All the secrets of the crafts had to be protected, like the secret of making scarlet dye,” costume designer Stefano Nicolao added. The same paranoia applied to the techniques of glass-making, and many other trades, such as the formula for the best teriaca in Europe. (Teriaca was the all-purpose medicament of choice for centuries, but the recipe has been lost. Would that be a mystery?) There were obvious commercial reasons — survival reasons — for relying, not on a hearty handshake and a call for another round of drinks, but merely the shimmer of a sideways glance, a tiny shrug. Did that little frown mean yes or no?
But by the Romantic era, the idea of Venice’s inscrutability had gotten completely out of hand. Once secrecy had become the way of life, aided by the custom of wearing masks up to half the year, it didn’t take long before the entire city came to be viewed as a fantastic decoction of intrigue, deception, and eventually — why not? — erotic adventure. But I still don’t see how all that adds up to “mysterious.”
Which leads me to my second objection to this cliche, which is that I don’t understand how a city which covers just three square miles, with only 59,000 inhabitants, and is visited by millions of people every year (though admittedly in very short bursts of time and attention), can possibly be presented as retaining even the tiniest shred of a secret.
Tokyo has 35,676,000 inhabitants and covers 5,200 square miles– you could make a very good case for there being a mass of secrets as big as the Sears Tower hidden in there somewhere. Probably a much better case than you could make for Venice.
Maybe the force governing these Venetian so-called secrets is the city’s beauty. But why should beauty have anything to do with secrecy? I’d be willing to bet money that there are as many, or more, secrets in Lincoln, Nebraska, as there are in Venice. But nobody indulges in reveries about the secrets of Shreveport, or contemplates the mysteries of Walla Walla. Why?
And another thing. If there were to be secrets here, how have they managed to stay secret all this time? Amazon.com lists 11,696 books under the keyword “Venice.” Secrets? Where?
My opinion on the subject can best be expressed by Sherlock Holmes’s astute comment to Dr. Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.”
Why insist on seeking something ephemeral and perhaps even indefinable? If you really want to discover Venice, don’t go looking for secrets; look at exactly what there is. Anything you can see in broad daylight anywhere in the city is going to be as complex, as brilliant, as astonishing as any rumpsprung old “secret” foisted off on you by yet another Venicemonger.
Yes, of course the city has an eccentric glamor, an insinuating fascination that can indeed sneak up on you and trap you. Venice is beautiful; to say that is to have said little more than that the sun rises in the east and water runs downhill. It is unforgettable, fatal, addictive, whatever you want. People become infatuated with it, or the idea of it. I offer myself as a case in point. But that doesn’t make it mysterious.
So let me make a heartfelt, and I’m sure completely inaudible, plea for some new word to describe Venice that will take the place of any term that is synonymous with secrecy, concealment, enigma, or anything more subtle than a bowl of pasta and beans, or a couple of fried clams. Please. Just try.
I stated in a recent post that Venice was now the number one cruise port in the Mediterranean. A new study reveals that the blue ribbon goes to Civitavecchia, the port about 46 miles/one hour from Rome. Two million passengers went through the port in 2009, according to EBNT (Ente Bilaterale Nazionale di Turismo).
For the record, the Port of Venice reports that 1,420,980 cruise passengers came or went in 2009.
I realize that you can make yourself verge on crazy by tracking each little item and what it means, but I thought it would be wise to update the hierarchy, lest anyone think I insisted on pushing Venice to the front of whatever line there is, just because it’s, you know, the most beautiful city in the world (TMBCITW).